At Vail’s Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival, an event where everyone is focused on drinking beer, Ginger Johnson’s seminar took beer out of the glass and put it onto the list of ingredients for the next meal. Johnson is the founder of Women Enjoying Beer, a company that focuses on marketing beer to women. The company does research and conducts survey groups, then consults with breweries and other beer-related organizations about how best to reach out to women.
At this seminar, however, Johnson was focused entirely on food. Advertising, if there was any, was successful, as a line formed outside the room, with attendees hoping for an open spot. Both genders were represented in the audience as delicious smells filled the room and volunteers made their way around the tables, pouring beer.
Johnson, a slight woman with short dark hair and glasses, bustled through the chaos, a single atom of high energy bouncing from one task to the next. Each place setting had a place mat for taking notes, a pencil and various stickers and brochures for cheese, chocolate and Johnson’s company.
“I love food,” said Johnson, by way of introduction. She’s also a big fan of beer and even married a brewing professional. Like many obsessed with beer, Johnson is always looking for a chance to experiment and use it in unexpected ways. This led her to the kitchen.
“When I think of beer, I think of it as flavor,” she said, and that’s how she makes her recipe decisions.
Before starting the tasting, Johnson taught the audience members her two smelling techniques, to give them a sense of the beer she used in her recipes. The “drive-by” consists of slowly swiping the beer-filled glass under one’s nose to get a whiff.
“Don’t cheat!” Johnson admonished one overly eager audience member who had chanced a quick sip. She then asked those listening what they smelled.
Next came the “bloodhound” — putting one’s nose partially into the glass and taking in a big sniff. This produced many more scent and flavor observations. Now sips were allowed, with Johnson encouraging everyone to swish the beer all over their mouths, to let it touch each of the sensory receptors on the tongue, palette and roof of the mouth.
The first dish was a cup of roasted pork and beans, paired with Collage, the first in the Conflux series of collaboration beers between Deschutes Brewery and Hair of the Dog Brewing Co. (both in Oregon). For the recipe, Johnson soaked the pork and beans in the Collage, letting the flavor of the beer seep into the dry ingredients. With “big” beers like Collage (11.6 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV), Johnson said, the flavor sticks around long after the alcohol is cooked away.
For beers with a more bitter profile, Johnson suggested using them as an ingredient in salad dressing.
“Cooking doesn’t need to mean applying heat. Cooking can be preparation,” she said, much like soaking the beans — or “beer-inating” your ingredients.
When dealing with beers high in ABV, Johnson said the cook should consider whether the beer is the right flavor match for the dish and whether to keep the warming factor of the alcohol in play. And if you’re not sure? Try it and see what happens, she urged.
“I’m a very experimental cook,” she said. She’s not afraid to go off-book and, in fact, enjoys it. “In the end, experiment. That’s the fun.”
The second dish featured The Sixth Glass, a quadruple, part of the Smokestack series by Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co. Johnson used it to make hummus with red pepper, fresh cilantro, lemon and olive oil. As with the beans and pork in the first dish, Johnson soaked the dried hummus mix in the beer, melding the flavors together.
‘Do you taste the beer?’
During the tasting, Johnson encouraged questions and kept the audience thinking with questions of her own.
“Do you taste the beer?” she asked. “Does the beer make the hummus more spicy or mild?”
For the third dish, a dessert, Johnson soaked ladyfingers in Fluxus, a dark beer that’s brewed annually as part of the Tribute series by Allagash Brewing Co. in Maine. Fluxus changes annually, and the 2013 version features blood oranges with coffee and chocolate malts. Johnson then smothered the ladyfingers in vanilla ice cream and added a single piece of candied ginger (which she called “divisive” for its pungent flavor) to the top.
Rounding out the session, Johnson encouraged her audience to keep an open mind when it comes to beer types.
“You are not to be a beer racist,” she admonished. “Color is only color. If you say you don’t like dark or light beers, you’re cutting yourself off.”